Starting from Quirpini: The Travels and Places of a Bolivian People

Starting from Quirpini: The Travels and Places of a Bolivian People

by Stuart Alexander Rockefeller


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The people of Quirpini, a rural community in the Bolivian Andes, are in constant motion. They visit each other's houses, work in their fields, go to nearby towns for school, market, or official transactions, and travel to Buenos Aires for wage labor. In this rich ethnography, Stuart Alexander Rockefeller describes how these places become intertwined via circuits constituted by the movement of people, goods, and information. Drawing on the work of Henri LeFebvre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Nancy Munn, Rockefeller argues that by their travels, Quirpinis play a role in shaping the places they move through. This compelling study makes important contributions to contemporary debates about spatiality, temporality, power, and culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253222107
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/26/2010
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Stuart Alexander Rockefeller is a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University.

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Starting from Quirpini

The Travels and Places of a Bolivian People

By Stuart Alexander Rockefeller

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Stuart Alexander Rockefeller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35497-6


Places and History in and about Quirpini

Quirpini is a community of about five hundred people in the San Lucas River valley. The valley is the historical heart of the loosely defined San Lucas region, in the southern highlands of Chuquisaca, one of nine "departments" into which Bolivia is divided. Bounded to the east by the Pilcomayo River, to the north and west by the Department of Potosí, the San Lucas region is geographically and agriculturally varied, ranging from the low, hot valleys to highlands that soar beyond four thousand meters above sea level (see Figures 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3, which locate San Lucas and Quirpini in relation to Bolivia). The south of Chuquisaca is one of the poorest areas in Bolivia, characterized by low rainfall, difficult terrain, and poor communication with the rest of the country. San Lucas lies near the southern extreme of the vast zone stretching across much of highland Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, where rural people mainly speak the Quechua or Aymara languages, and occupy the bottom rungs of a racialized social hierarchy.

The Crossroads

A traveler enters the San Lucas River valley from Padcoyo, a village on the main road between Potosí and Tarija. Padcoyo is the cruce, or crossroads, for the town of San Lucas as well as the highland areas around it. Before the road was improved in the 1970s, Padcoyo was by all accounts an insignificant hamlet, but by the 1990s it had a population of several hundred people, as well as a few restaurants for travelers, a high school, some government offices, and a weekly market. The town consisted mainly of a kilometer-long string of low adobe houses stretched along a bend in the graded dirt truck road, and surrounded by fields. Trucks rumbled through Padcoyo every hour or so, carrying various combinations of agricultural products, furniture, ores, livestock, and people. This is the main road to southern Bolivia and the most important connection between the Bolivian highlands and Argentina; nearly all the traffic was trucks, although jeeps carrying development officials passed through from time to time, as did the occasional bus.

While I was in the area, it was not uncommon to see a battered jeep or other vehicle waiting near the middle of Padcoyo, at the start of a smaller dirt road heading north, and nearby a few men and women waiting with large bundles wrapped up in brightly colored cloth. These cars were taxis, waiting for a carload of people and cargo to carry to San Lucas. The road they followed passes through Quirpini, and this was the road I usually took. Two hundred or so meters south of this road, another, even smaller road heads east, crossing a dry plain and heading toward distant mountains. There were rarely any cars waiting to carry people in this direction, and only a few vehicles a day traveled on it.

These two roads mark the major geographical and ecological divide of the area, a divide which has also become political. The second road goes to the highland communities of the San Lucas region, then over the distant mountains, and down to the tropical valley of the Pilcomayo River. The highland area is mostly made up of puna, or high arid hills and plains. Much of the area is more than four thousand meters above sea level. Villages here (there are no major towns) are located alongside seasonal river beds, by springs, or near flat areas with arable land. To the east are a number of small mines. In the western part of the highlands, however, there is little source of livelihood except for agriculture and herding. People primarily grow wheat, barley, potatoes, and some quinoa. This area has experienced extremely high levels of out-migration.

The communities of this highland area, as well as the highlands of Qhocha, to the west of the S an Lucas valley, were, until the Agrarian Reform that began in 1953, entirely under the control of haciendas, large landholdings in which the owner controlled not only the land but the indigenous campesinos living there, who worked the land for the benefit of the owner. This situation was utterly transformed by the Agrarian Reform as, over some years, the residents of the various communities reclaimed nearly all the land in the highlands. Politically, the highland areas (Qhocha as well as the eastern highlands) were dominated by the campesino union, called the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinas Bolivianas, or CSUTCB.

This was the latest in a series of unions to represent campesinos nationwide (Hahn 1992:73–74). The regional union headquarters is in the highland town of Pututaca, and the union power base is in the eastern highlands. Although the regional Spanish-speaking elite were dominant in the San Lucas valley, in the highlands their power was often matched by that of the union.

The other road, the one with the taxis, leads to the political and economic heart of the region. The trip to San Lucas took about an hour in good weather, although in the rainy season the trip could take longer, and after a heavy rain the road became impassable until the waters subsided. This road crosses the same dry plain as the highland road, then goes through the hamlet of Mishkhamayu. After Mishkhamayu the road begins a winding descent into the San Lucas River valley, which flows from the Qhocha plain to the west. Here the landscape changes dramatically: water is plentiful at the head of the valley, and the desert-like conditions on the plain are replaced by numerous green shrubs and trees among the many small fields tucked into the side of the valley. There is also a scattering of houses, usually near the fields. This is the community of Cumuni, which during my time in the field was completing the process of separating itself from Quirpini and merging with Mishkhamayu (see chapters 4 and 5). In contrast to the cold and dry puna of the highland areas, the upper valley, in an ecological zone called valle alto (high valley) or cabazera de valle (headwater valley), whose main settlements lie at about three thousand meters altitude, has relatively plentiful water and is sheltered from severe weather by the steep mountains surrounding it. Agriculturalists here primarily grow corn (for food and sale) and peaches (for sale); other important crops include fava beans and wheat.

Immediately below Cumuni the valley narrows and arable land disappears. In the next widening of the valley, a couple of kilometers below, lies the community of Quirpini. Here the river is no longer visible from the road, as it runs in its own canyon some ten meters below the valley floor. Quirpini straddles the river, with houses and fields to the east and west; unlike Cumuni, it has a defined center, marked visually by the school's eucalyptus trees when I arrived, and by the whitewashed chapel when I departed.

Below Quirpini is Tambo Mokho, a small community on the edge of the town of San Lucas. The land here is drier, the vegetation thinner. Few houses or fields are visible where the road passes through Tambo Mokho, as most of them are clustered around the few arable fields on a seasonal river a few hundred yards to the west; all that is visible is a small school and scattered mulli trees. Below Tambo Mokho the road enters San Lucas, a stronghold of the region's Spanish-speaking elite in a terrain mainly inhabited by campesinos. But before we arrive in San Lucas, some historical and social background is in order.

"Campesino" is the term by which Quirpinis designate their social position and which members of the Spanish-speaking San Lucas elite use to refer to the Quechua-speaking residents of the many small villages of the region. The best treatment of this subtle, untranslatable word for rural agriculturalists, especially those considered to be of indigenous background, is provided by Hahn (1992:3–4). In The Divided World of the Bolivian Andes, Hahn argues that the term, as used in Bolivia, does not simply denote a "peasant" but "signals the existence of the two worlds that make up that country." It refers to "an inhabitant of the countryside ... whether ... that inhabitant be a peasant, a craftsperson, a rural merchant or ... a farmer," but it also suggests someone who is "of" the countryside, particularly an indigenous person: "the word campesino came to replace the word indio. This use became official speech after the 1952 revolution with the intention of dignifying the ethnic category of Indian." So the word also signifies "those people who were of and remained a part of the 'indigenous way of life'; those people who ... were indigenous to the land of which the Europeans and their descendants were alien."

A third term, mestizo, or person of mixed indigenous and European race, came into use early in the colonial period; today other such "intermediate" terms as cholo/chola further complicate the picture. Nevertheless, in the San Lucas area, social hierarchies are fundamentally dual in nature, based on a distinction between the mainly rural, Quechua-speaking agriculturalists, variously called "campesinos," "indigenas," or, rarely, "indios," and the Spanish-speaking elite of San Lucas, often called caballeros or gente decente. Indeed, the intermediate terms commonly used elsewhere barely play a role in San Lucas; the terminology and dress associated with cholos is evident mostly among campesinos, and the structural position that mestizos occupy in many rural areas has devolved to the high-status group whose members publicly claim European origins. In talking about the identity and values of this elite and the larger caste of which they claim membership, I will often employ the term criollo. By this term I refer to the values of the social classes that have dominated Bolivia, and most other Spanish American nations, since the times of independence. Prominent elements of criollo value systems are the Spanish language, and allegiance, often expressed in racial terms, to a culture that sees itself as an "American" variant on an Iberian, and thus "European," model. Bearers of these views see themselves as emphatically "civilized" (not "indigenous" or "traditional"), ambivalently modern, and distinctively national.

The designation "campesino" is telling. As Hahn's gloss makes clear, it relegates indigenous peasants (like Whitman's "red aborigines") to the past. It also implies that the people so designated are 'rooted,' both connected to the soil and immobile. The word contrasts with the elite designation caballero, or "horseman." Rhetorically, a caballero is above the ground and mobile.

Contrary to the image of immobile campesinos, for millennia, people throughout the rural Andes have maintained links of kinship and prestation across hundreds of kilometers, linking areas across multiple ecological zones. For example, until the Land Reform, Quirpini held land far afield, particularly in the hot Pilcomayo River valley, in a version of what Murra calls a "vertical archipelago" (1972, 1978, 1985). Several communities in the highlands around the valley had themselves been satellites of other ethnic groups, although their connections with their home regions were broken long ago, as the highlands were incorporated into haciendas under the Spanish colony (Presta 1990). In other words, people of the Southern Andes have a centuries-old tradition of routinely traveling great distances in order to subsist. As Saignes (1995:170) puts it: "The practice of migration is deeply rooted in Andean history."

The ethnic makeup of the San Lucas region itself is partly the product of a different kind of movement — the forced relocation of peoples for reasons of state. Before and during the Inca period, the upper San Lucas River valley and surrounding highlands were the site of repeated fighting between Aymara-speaking agriculturalists, apparently part of the Chichas people (Bouysse-Cassagne 1978, esp. 1059 [map]), and the warlike Chiriguanos, who frequently raided from the lowlands (Abercrombie 1998). Abercrombie (1998) argues that the Incas, during their brief control of the southern Andes, moved people into the area from three of the component polities, or diarchies, of the Quillacas federation near Lake Poopo, in what is now Oruro. Under Spanish colonial rule, the lords of the reduced Quillacas federation maintained ties with the area (then called Payacoyo). Over the centuries several other ethnic groups established satellites in the highlands outside the central valley, including the Visijsa (Yura) and people from Chaqui (Presta 1990; Zulawski 1995). In the late sixteenth century the town of San Lucas de Payacoyo was founded as part of the colonial system of reducciones, whereby indigenous people were obliged to live in these towns conceived on an idealized Spanish model, abandoning the dispersed residences they had occupied before the Spaniards arrived. The reducciones were intended to facilitate the "civilizing" of the Indians, as well as rendering them subject to greater observation and control by colonial and Church authorities (see Larson 1998:64–74).

In the course of the next few centuries the San Lucas region became effectively independent of Quillacas. The three groups sent as colonists from Lake Poopo developed into the component ayllus (Kellaja, Asanaque, and Yucasa) of the new polity, all ruled by a Kellaja lord. According to Presta (1990), the area as a whole came to be known as "Kellaja." At some point late in the colonial period, or possibly even in the nineteenth century, people of the area shifted from speaking Aymara to Quechua, a linguistic change that took place across southern Bolivia and continues to this day in parts of the country. No one I met in the area had any memory of their ancestors speaking Aymara, or indeed having a historical connection to people from Oruro.

Today Quirpini is also known as Jatun Kellaja ("Great" or "Big" Kellaja), as it was formerly the major part of the area's dominant ayllu. Two prevalent surnames in the area reinforce the idea that Quirpini once played a politically central role in the region. In Sakapampa, the richest of the three current zonas of Quirpini, the most common surname is Huarachi, and in the nearby community of Avichuca (once a part of Quirpini and still seen as belonging to Jatun Kellaja) most families are named Colque; the names "Colque" and "Guarache" were both generally used by the rulers of Quillacas prior to the Spanish conquest (Abercrombie 1998:160–161).

From early colonial times the cash-based economy introduced by the Europeans has coexisted with various non-cash and non-market forms of circulation. A key non-cash market has been conducted through the travels of long-distance traders, called llameros for the llamas that they used to transport goods. Trading salt from Uyuni, or potatoes and ritual materials from the altiplano for corn and other valley products, the llameros for centuries have helped connect the highlands of Potosí and Oruro culturally and materially with the temperate valleys of Chuquisaca and Cochabamba. They still pass through the San Lucas area, mainly on the way to the lowland pepper-producing zones; many have foregone their llamas for trucks. Llameros compete with a growing number of regional fairs that bring people and products from different ecological and economic spheres. Whereas the llameros engage in barter, fair vendors prefer selling their goods for money, and thus not only do they articulate various regions but they also provide an important connection between the cash economy of Bolivia and the rural hinterland.

Apart from transplanted populations and travels along archipelagos, the terrain of the Southern Andes has long been molded by travels related to work. After the devastating epidemics of European diseases at the time of the early colonies (see Larson 1998:52; and, esp., Cook 1981), probably the most dramatic demographic phenomenon in the colonial period was the mita, the system of obligatory service adapted by the Spaniards from an Inca model to recruit a mass labor force for the silver mines of Potosí from eighteen provinces of the southern Andes. As instituted under the Viceroy Toledo in the late sixteenth century, the mita obliged all male originarios, or residents of their ancestral communities, between the ages of eighteen and fifty to spend several months of every seven years working in the mines (see Cole 1985). Tens of thousands of Indians were sent to Potosí every year; many died, and many remained in the city. The mita's most dramatic demographic effect was indirect. Along with the system of native tribute, it gave indigenous people, particularly the men on whom the burden of forced labor and tribute fell most heavily, reason to leave their home communities and go either to the cities, where they entered the labor market, or to other rural areas, where they had no rights to land but also no obligations to pay tribute or work in the mita. Those who went to new rural areas were called forasteros, or "foreigners," by Spanish administrators; keeping this massive internal migration under control became a central, and largely unrealized, goal of colonial policy (Larson 1998:97–98, 102–115).


Excerpted from Starting from Quirpini by Stuart Alexander Rockefeller. Copyright © 2010 Stuart Alexander Rockefeller. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents


Part 1. Inscriptions
Introduction: Disorientations
1. Places and History in and about Quirpini

Part 2. Facets of a Place
2. Bicycles and Houses
3. The Geography of Planting Corn
4. Carnival and the Spatial Practice of Community

Part 3. From Quirpini
5. Ethnic Politics and the Control of Movement
6. Placing Bolivia in Quirpini: Civic Ritual and the Power of Context
7. Where Do You Go When You Go to Buenos Aires?

Conclusion: Coming Back to Quirpini


What People are Saying About This

The Graduate Center, City University of New York - Setha M. Low

A groundbreaking book [that] re-envisions place as formed by individual movements, trips and digressions as well as a situational context for action.

Haverford College - Laurie Kain Hart

It is very difficult to write ethnography about a small and unfamiliar place that is compelling to read, that flows from detail to detail, event to event, with the pleasurable sense of one's following along as a relaxed, but deeply curious, and somewhat surprised observer. [Stuart Rockefeller] succeeds in this. . . . [A] beautifully written ethnography. . . .an example of careful and evocative writing about what people do. It is a pleasure to read and a model of good writing as well as good anthropology.

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